When I was about 15 years old and a fledgling “serious” photographer, I wanted to enlarge and crop one of my photos in a particular way. Unfortunately, in 1979 it was all but impossible to edit a photo unless you had your own darkroom and printing equipment. Fast-forward about 30 years, though, and photo editing is child’s play. Cropping is an essential photo skill to improve on the original composition. But have you ever taken the time to learn the Crop tool’s secrets? This week, I have five things you should know about this unassuming little tool.

1. Crop to an aspect ratio
Here’s a trick that people typically take a long time to figure out ontheir own, but is absolutely revolutionary once you know about it. Nomatter what photo-editing program you use, odds are really high thatyou can tell the Crop tool to cut a rectangle in some specific aspectratio. If you tend to click the Crop tool and then just try to”eyeball” an 8-by-10-inch aspect ratio, use the aspect-ratio setting towork more effectively. In Photoshop Elements, for example, click theCrop tool (tenth item from the top of the toolbar) and then choose aspecific entry from the Aspect Ratio menu in the Tool Options paletteat the top of the screen. To go back to a freeform crop box, select NoRestriction.

2. Flip the orientation
Suppose that you are trying to make a 5-by-7-inch crop box, but all youget is a landscape-oriented crop when what you really want is aportrait orientation. You might already have figured out that you cantype directly into the W and H boxes in the Tool Options palette toswitch the order of the 5 and 7.

But here’s an easier way: Simply click the arrows between the crop dimensions, and the photo editor will flip the orientation automatically.

3. Crop to inches or pixels
Sometimes you need to crop an image to an aspect ratio based on pixels,not inches. Web designers and bloggers, for instance, often need animage that’s exactly 500 by 400 pixels to fit in a particular part of aWeb page–and inches, of course, don’t mean much on the Web. Pullingoff this trick is easy as well. You’ve already seen that the W and Hboxes contain the aspect-ratio values, such as ‘7 in.’ and ‘5 in.’ Butif you type a number and add “px” instead, your photo editor will knowthat you mean pixels. Keep in mind, however, that all you’re doing issetting the aspect ratio of the photo, so indicating, say, 500 by 400pixels will produce exactly the same cropping results as indicating 5by 4 inches.

4. Remember: cropping doesn’t resize
Unfortunately, this item can be confusing, and it’s related to theissue I mentioned in the previous tip. When you crop a photo to 5 by 7inches, for example, you’re not necessarily sizing the image to 5inches by 7 inches. The same is true with pixels–a 500-by-400-pixelcrop might produce a photo that’s actually 1000 by 800 pixels. Why?You’re cropping the photo to a specific aspect ratio, not to aparticular physical size. Once you specify an aspect ratio, you canmake the crop box bigger or smaller to achieve the perfect composition.If you want the image sized to a certain number of pixels, however, youneed to do that in a second step. In Photoshop Elements, choose Image> Resize > Image Size, and specify the size you need.This step actually reduces the image to the desired number of pixels.

5. Use recompose as a magic croptool
If you own Photoshop Elements 10, you have a superpowered Crop toolhiding in the same cubby as the usual one. When you use the RecomposeTool, Photoshop Elements smartly edits the less critical elements in aphoto while preserving the important details. Consider this photo ofthe Grand Canal in Venice, California, for example.

If you wanted to crop it into a 5-by-7 portrait photo, you might haveto throw away a lot of detail on the left or right of the image. But byusing the Recompose Tool, you just drag the edges of the photo in (orchoose the desired crop size), and Photoshop Elements trims away someof the canal in the middle of the photo, keeping the houses and canoesintact.

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